Circles inside Circles (Thesis Thursday #8)

I realize this may sound a bit far-fetched, and I certainly do not want to give the impression that I think Geoffrey was playing entirely above board. But I do think Geoffrey’s techniques and agenda differed mostly in degree from his contemporaries, not kind. To return to the question that sent us down this line of thought, where else was a historian supposed to get information about the past from? If there were no books from reputable past historians from which to draw, how could one ever hope to gain information about the past? Fetishization of names ala Isadore allowed the medieval historian to colonize and reclaim the distant past. It was not the only technique, but it was surely a common one.

I can’t recall the exact saint’s life in which it appears,1 but I do recall reading once of the preface to a saint’s life in which the medieval author explains that when he went looking for information about the saint, he found none, and thanks be to the Lord that he did. For, the author continued, that afforded him the perfect opportunity to get at the truth of the saint’s life, without the messy business of the actual facts getting in the way. As everybody knew, the lives of saints were meant to mirror the life of Christ, so if you wanted to tell the truth about a saint, all you had to do was tell the truth about Christ.

This sort of thinking derived from the way that medievals read their Bible, which is to say, typologically. Things in the Old Testament were said to pre-figure or pre-incarnate the things in the New Testament. Jonah spent three days in a whale’s belly. Christ arose from the grave after three days. These two facts were not coincidental: Jonah pre-figured Christ; he was a “type” of Christ. So if you want to know more about the Resurrection, you could always learn more about Jonah and the whale. Indeed, you can’t swing a dead cat in medieval exegesis without hitting an earlier dead cat that prefigures the very cat you’re swinging. Thus Eve, the first mother, was a type of Mary, the mother of Christ. The fab four of Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Ringo Daniel) were types of the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Ringo John). David, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Ringo Adam–all of them were types of Christ in one way or another.2 And so on, and so on.

St Augustine, seen here in a still from his hit crime drama "Festina Lente... Pvnc." (It ran for three seasons on PBS in the mid-80's.)

This sort of thinking about Biblical history had long been extended to secular history. The Church Father Augustine of Hippo and his eager student Orosius taught subsequent generations of Christians that the divine pattern of redemption was manifest also in temporal affairs. So long as you did not make the mistake of valuing the stories of secular kings and queens for their own sake, you were free to read all the pagan pre-Christian history you wanted. You just had to be sure to read it in order to better understand what you knew to be true from the way you’d read learned to read your Bible. Everything pre-figured everything else.

Today, historians point to the twelfth century as a time when the Church’s franchise on secular history was finally slipping, by which they chiefly mean that historians no longer had to add the obligatory “and this all goes to show that all that is earthly is vanity and the only true value is found in God’s redemption” to the end of every fifth line.3 Geoffrey of Monmouth stood at the vanguard of a sudden renewed interest in the history of kings and empires as more than just types of Christ, the king of kings, etc. But old habits die hard. Even when writing a primarily secular history, the twelfth-century historian was still likely to conceive of the past as being composed of repeating elements that reflect and reinforce each other. If it had happened once, it was more likely to happen again. Likewise, it was always more likely that something had happened twice than that it had only happened just the one time.

So what does this have to do with Constantine, much less Uther and Arthur? Well… maverick though he may have been, Geoffrey was conventional in this regard–or, if you prefer, aware enough of the convention to exploit it. Remember, Geoffrey was filling a space in British history that had hitherto been almost completely vacant. While there was a list of battles for Arthur floating around, showing up in places like William of Malmesbury’s early twelfth-century history, there was very little meat to the story of the British resistance against the Saxons. And of the centuries prior to that, even less was known. While the idea that Britain was founded by Brutus the refugee Trojan dated back to at least the ninth century, the Nennian Historia Brittonum, the only major source of British history before Geoffrey, skips right from Brutus to the Romans, with nothing in between, and then skips again to the founding of Brittany, and from there to the story of Vortigern, St. Germanus, and the coming of the Saxons. That’s a lot of gaps to fill without any facts to fall back on. So Geoffrey seems to have decided to fill the gaps with repeating patterns. Since he had several centuries to work with, he had a lot of room to have the patterns repeat again and again. Ironically, because he had so much room to be inventive, his inventions could make each other more plausible simply by referencing each other.

Constantine, Uther’s father, becomes yet another recurrence of many patterns previously established, and likewise he establishes patterns that will recur in the lives of his son and his grandson. The more times something happens, the more credible each individual occurrence. So Uther, still raising armies from his cradle when we last left him, waits to re-trace his father’s path across the British Channel to deliver Britain from depredation by foreign invaders. Only unlike his father, Uther will be bringing his brother with him on the journey.4

But before Geoffrey can bring the brothers home, he has to get their home ready to receive them. Already, we’ve covered the first phase of that preparation. Geoffrey imports in the father-son emperor-monk pattern from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History‘s version of the lives of Constantine III and his son Constans, and attaches it to a character who already existed in the accepted historical record, the tyrant Vortigern. Geoffrey found him in the Historia Brittonum, where he finds quite a lot of the things in the Arthurian section of his Historia. In fact, the Historia Brittonum is more or less the skeleton which Geoffrey fleshes out with his inventions.

In the Historia Brittonum‘s version of events, forty years pass from the final departure of the Romans and the rise of Vortigern to the throne. Vortigern, the HB tells, ruled over a kingdom threatened on all sides, by the Picts and Scots in the north, the Irish in the west, and the Saxons in the east. From the south, the Romans still occasionally threatened, but there Vortigern’s main concern is the man called Ambrosius. As you may recall, we’ve met Ambrosius before; he’s Uther’s only slightly elder brother, the one whose death is marked by a comet in the sky5 And just as in Geoffrey’s version, Ambrosius of the HMB spends a considerable amount of time off-stage while Vortigern faffs about with the Picts, Scots, Saxons, and his fellow Brits. At least in Geoffrey he has his brother Uther to keep him company.

And he’s going to need his brother for another week yet, as that’s all I have time for this week. Looks like Geoffrey’s not the only one building on repeating patterns, for once again I have managed to keep Uther almost entirely off stage for a whole post. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I can’t write the whole dissertation without ever actually seriously talking about Uther. See you next week.


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  1. Scholarly types, help me out? []
  2. It might be quicker to list characters in the Bible who weren’t types of Christ. []
  3. Well, that’s not what they’d say they chiefly mean, but I don’t want to pick too many fights today. []
  4. This itself a recurrence of another pattern, the brothers united, which winds through the Historia as well. []
  5. Geoffrey calls him Ambrosius Aurelianus, the flip-flopped version of the HB‘s Aurelius Ambrosius. []

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=697578277 Steve Muhlberger

    This is a very interesting post!

  • Kris

    Apropos nothing medieval (I think)… the discussion about pre-figuring Christ et al, and the line “repeating elements that reflect and reinforce each other” made me think of a Mandelbrot set.   Which excites all sort of ideas, but none to do with foxes or monkeys or snail riding, so, really, how exciting can they be? 

  • http://www.gotmedieval.com Got Medieval

    If the medievals had know about fractals, they would have been very into them, I can assure you of that. The recursive microcosm/macrocosm “as above so below” thing was kind of their deal.

  • http://twitter.com/OLECT19 andY?

    Now this one was great fun (as per usual)!  Modern mathematics of theoretical infinite regression always lead me back to the time when Infinity was not quite the abhored quantity it became in our time. 

  • Pingback: Heavenfield Round-up 2: A Medieval Miscellany « Heavenfield

  • http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Jarrett

    “Geoffrey calls him Ambrosius Aurelianus, the flip-flopped version of the HB‘s Aurelius Ambrosius.”

    It may be worth pointing out that the HB had likewise just flip-flopped the name given by Gildas, so here Geoffrey is actually in accord with the older source. Sorry: Gildas and the HB are basically the only texts you’re talking about here that I know. I do find the overall argument of a two-way interpretative street very persuasive though!

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